Illingworth Kerr, "September Dawn," 1970, oil on canvas, 54” x 54”.
Illingworth Kerr (1905 – 1989)
By Portia Priegert
Illingworth Kerr may be best remembered in the popular imagination as an educator, given the gallery that bears his name at the Alberta College of Art and Design. But Kerr was also a respected painter whose work, primarily landscapes, carries the inflections of his childhood in rural Saskatchewan.
Calgary art dealer Ian Loch was excited when he first saw an unusually large Kerr landscape, September Dawn, a vivid depiction of a prairie sunrise that teeters on the verge of abstraction. The work had travelled directly from Kerr’s studio to an Alberta collector – and had been exhibited in a public space only once, in 1982. It took Loch three years to persuade the owner to sell. “In this business, you need patience,” says Loch, who has handled many smaller pieces by Kerr over the years. The painting is not typical of Kerr’s commercial work, landscapes influenced by the Group of Seven, although Loch notes that Kerr dabbled in abstraction starting in the late 1960s and also painted a nocturne featuring similar horizontal bands of thick paint.
Kerr, known to friends as Buck, grew up in Lumsden. Relatives in Ontario recognized his talent and paid his way to Toronto, where he studied at the Ontario College of Art, coming under the influence of Frederick Varley and J.E.H. MacDonald. Kerr returned home and worked in a small studio above the local pool hall, before heading to London to study at the Westminster School of Art. He came back to Canada in the early years of the Second World War, and eventually headed the art department at Calgary’s Provincial Institute of Technology, which later became the Alberta College of Art.
After retiring from teaching in 1967, Kerr’s practice flourished. He often sold works from his studio, sometimes after sharing a bottle of whiskey with the buyer, says Loch, who has heard many stories about Kerr over the years. Loch offers this assessment: “He was a colourful character.”
Kerr’s achievements include the Order of Canada and an honorary doctorate from the University of Calgary. His work is in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa.